Abby Minor lives in the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania where she works on poems, essays, paintings, quilts, and projects for reproductive justice. The recipient of fellowships, residencies, and awards from Bitch Media, Split this Rock, The Rensing Center, The Penland School of Crafts, and the Ora Lerman Charitable Trust, Abby is an advisory board member of Abortion Conversation Projects and the founding director of Ridgelines Language Arts. When she’s not writing or day jobbing, she organizes an anarchic array of classes, gatherings, summer camps, residencies, and pseudo-conferences. She is also the author of the poetry chapbooks Real Words for Inside (Gap Riot Press, 2018) and Plant Light, Dress Light (dancing girl press, 2016). Her essay in Contrary, “Rooms,” won a 2018 Best of the Net Award from Sundress Publications.
Bridget Bradshaw: Your essay, “Rooms,” is very emotional and visceral, do you ever struggle with the idea of publishing your personal feelings?
Abby Minor: Well, I think most artists explore experiences that are emotional for them in some way, but in this case I’m writing about something that’s intensely stigmatized, so that has given me pause. I had an abortion in 2013 and even though I did start writing and talking about abortion in public fairly soon after that, it took me a number of years to get to the point where I could publish work that made it clear that I myself had had an abortion.
I live in a really small Appalachian community, and I have positive relationships with people who identify as pro-life, not to mention with people who identify as pro-choice but who still apologize for abortion and misrepresent people who have abortions. I remember the first time I published something in which I talked about my own experience, I asked my sweetheart (and it’s his experience, too)—What are we going to do if someone throws a rock through the window some night? Looking back it seems like an overreaction to ask that, but there is the threat of violence, and the threat of vitriol. Nobody wants to be considered evil or innately confused.
Luckily I don’t have those fears anymore, and actually the more open I’ve been the freer I feel. Adrienne Rich writes somewhere that the major struggle for each generation of women is that we have to keep unearthing our histories, because they’re not taught to us and because previous excavations keep getting covered up—I definitely went on a journey to educate myself about the history of abortion, about abortion experiences in my family and community, and about reproductive politics more broadly. I read scholarly books like Karen Weingarten’s Abortion in the American Imagination and Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, as well as art-activism like Laia Abril’s photo-essay On Abortion. Books like these helped me to understand the lay of the land and to step forward with some courage.
I’ve also been lucky to connect with some very brave, gentle warriors, people who work to destigmatize abortion in radical ways—Melissa Madera of The Abortion Diary podcast, Peg Johnston and everyone at Abortion Conversation Projects. They’ve given me the clarity and support I’ve needed to feel accompanied, encouraged, and loved.
Bridget: Do you find that you think about the events of your life differently after you’ve written about them?
Abby: Yes, definitely. I would say that over the past six years I’ve been trying to write my way out of given modes of thinking about abortion. The pro-life movement has been very successful in defining the ways we talk and even feel about abortion and other reproductive experiences; I just wanted to see if I could create my own language and not play by those rules. I wanted to soar right over the mainstream “pro-life”/“pro-choice” rhetoric, and just wind up in a different place—a place of complexity, beauty, knowledge, humor, and love. I feel like I have done that and it’s been the most liberating experience of my life. I don’t mean to say it’s all roses now—I do still experience grief and rage related to stigma and misogyny, but writing has helped me to arrive on the other side of certain fears, in a place where I feel more deeply, permanently connected to truth.
My basic approach in doing this writing has been to resist the urge to draw a line between the political and aesthetic dimensions of experience. I think such a division is innately false, and also that to erase whatever line could be drawn between those two dimensions fulfills a spiritual need and has spiritual consequences. At this point I’m excited to stop writing about abortion for a while, but also to take this lesson with me: That writing is a way of actually changing. Changing the terms by which you feel and think, changing your interior landscape, and offering the possibility for that kind of change to others.
Bridget: The environment and setting of where you grew up shines through in your essay; how did it shape you and your writing?
Abby: I think growing up in Appalachia made me committed to any kind of art—in which category I include social gatherings, crafts, activisms—that’s vernacular and provisional. Fred Moten writes about these kinds of vernacular culture that really captivate me and teach me—culture that happens on various margins and moves horizontally, shifting and morphing but never getting branded. I love Moten’s idea that everything we do can be a kind of study, a kind of theorizing—walking, talking, making art, getting together. Appalachia feels like a place where things are in motion, and where things are being studied. People patching and fixing things and breaking them again.
At the same time, I try to be careful about romanticizing or glorifying this place, and sometimes I get frustrated by what I’d call performances of “hick face,” these kinds of masculinized swagger and anti-intellectual posturing that all of us out here can get wooed by and get off on. I think living here makes me especially sensitive to claims about cultural authenticity, about what’s “natural,” about the “folk”—at the same time that I do have a thing for dirt roads and pick-ups, I’m also completely enamored of experimental long poems by women and I have to remember to bring that part of myself to the pot-luck, too.
Bridget: In your essay, you bring up how not everyone fits into the definition of “woman;” what does womanhood mean to you?
Abby: Oh my gosh, that’s a big question! To answer in kind of a playful way, womanhood for me is like flower-printed skirts and smirks and rough knuckles. It’s bare feet, it’s unbridled laughter and anyone who values femaleness and femininity can get in on it. It’s also disobedient allegiances, butch gazes, certain kinds of deeply vulnerable swagger, and the sea.
As a woman who desires not to have children, because womanhood and motherhood are so synonymous in our culture, I feel a kinship with others who’ve had to fight to be defined as women and who’ve had to be very intentional about how they “do” womanhood—black women, queer and trans women, and old women. I adore the myriad forms of womanhood as I would adore an eclectic body of artwork made in many times and places, imagined and constructed over thousands of years.
Bridget: What literary influences do you draw from and see the most in your own writing?
Abby: I was recently talking with someone who’s a master of Chinese boxing and healing arts, and he referred to his “grand-teacher”—I loved this idea! I’ve never actually met or studied with any of my “grand-teachers,” but I’d like to very humbly claim to descend from Alice Notley, C.D. Wright, June Jordan, Susan Howe, Frank Stanford, Gwendolyn Brooks, Judith Vollmer, and Brenda Coultas.
Bridget: Is there any one thing, a book, a poem, or even a moment that made you want to be a writer?
Abby: Yes, actually, a person—Kevin Quashie, a brilliant teacher and writer, and a luminous man. He’s the author of books about black quiet, black queer studies and feminist studies, and aesthetics, among other things. Everyone at Smith College was in love with him when I was there, because he was just so intellectually tender and smart—he made all of his students feel like we were part of something sassy, revolutionary, personal, and eternal, that reading and writing could be both social and interior, a heaven in which all the parts of you could rest.
I was his student in a class called Classic Black Texts, and at the end of the semester he gave us the option of writing a seminar paper or writing ten poems. It was the first time I was explicitly encouraged to think of creative work, emotional work, and intellectual work as equal and connected. Kevin’s teaching gave me permission to move in the direction of creative writing and to begin to imagine it as a central function of my life.
Bridget: What are you currently reading or what is something you would recommend?
Abby: I’m reading Alice Notley’s Culture of One—she’s my poetry heroine. Her work is scarily beautiful and brave. Robin Coste Lewis’s The Voyage of the Sable Venusis one of my favorite books published in recent years. And I just finished C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil—I’d recommend it to any poet, but I think it would give artists of all types great courage.